My cousin Jeff lived large, and it killed him. At the age of 55, he dropped dead of a heart attack on the evening of his son’s wedding rehearsal dinner.Jeff definitely lived large in the corporeal sense. As far as I know — I hadn’t seen him in at least 15 years — he was overweight much of his adult life. Jeff also lived large in his mind. Every time I’d ask my uncle about what Jeff was doing, he told me he was still chasing gold.
I met one woman at Jeff’s funeral who said she’d met him through their shared interest in “metallurgy.” I suppressed my inner critic as I thought about all of his ventures into mining precious metals, none of which ever yielded the intended results.
When I first got the news of Jeff’s sudden death, my sadness was not due to a personal loss, as I hadn’t really known Jeff since we were young. Rather, I grieved for his father, who experienced the excruciating pain of his child dying before him. I also felt pangs of sorrow for Jeff’s mother, wife, brothers and sons. But after I attended the visitation and the graveside service, I felt the loss more acutely, because it was clear that I hadn’t really gotten to know Jeff at all.
There were many who rose up at graveside and spoke of other ways that Jeff lived large, spiritually and in his heart. This was the Jeff I hadn’t taken time to know. I heard testimony after testimony of the passion of Jeff’s spirituality and the scope of his caring for others. This testimony was balanced, but not diminished, by references to Jeff being a “dreamer” who was certainly not perfect. However, all spoke of how Jeff had enriched their lives, as a mentor, as one who gave gifts spontaneously, and as one who freely shared his romantic vision of life with them. They lived larger and deeper by knowing him.
On the drive home that day, I thought of others I came to know more about only after they had died. I thought of how much we limit our relationships with others by our definitions of them — circumscribed by time, distance and opportunity — but also by our own doing. In my mind, Jeff was a nice, friendly cousin of the past. In my adult life I saw him as someone with whom I had little in common.
My judgmental side viewed him as one who chased dreams at the expense of his family. At the funeral I’d been reminded that I did not share his and his family’s religious devotion — one that I perceived as fundamentalist, and thereby limiting. But after hearing family and friends speak, I caught a glimpse of the broader, more complex, and infinitely more interesting human being that I had failed to take time to know.
My experience at Jeff’s funeral was the third time I felt such regret at not knowing people in my life more fully — whether they were peripherally in my world or not. The first time was when a close friend’s father died. I knew of his interests and involvements superficially, but to me, he was primarily my friend’s father. I remembered the day he had toasted our new doctoral degrees with pale peach-colored champagne poured into clear lead crystal glasses. Speaking in an accent suggestive of Southern aristocracy, he educated us about the difference between champagne and “sparkling wine.” When he died, I was struck that I did not know the person introduced to me at his memorial. I mourned the person I could have known.
The second time I felt deprived of having known someone more deeply was at a memorial service for my goddaughter’s father. He was 25 years older than her mother, my contemporary. While I found his dual role as physician-farmer intriguing, I saw him as stoic and emotionally distant. This narrow view was put to rest when, at the service, I heard a recording of him singing — in a deep, resonant bass — an aria from Tristan and Isolde. I was moved and surprised by the depth of feeling he conveyed in that moment.
I hope my reflections on Jeff’s passing are not transitory, and that I don’t allow them to fade into distant memory, quickly obscured by the routines of daily life. In an odd way, perhaps, I am grateful for these feelings of loss, for they remind me of the richness of life that is available — and the people yet to know — simply by taking the time to get to know them.